Mark Story

Kyle vs. Kes rivalry has given Kentucky Speedway credibility

Kyle Busch sprayed his drink in Victory Lane after winning last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Busch also won there in 2011.
Kyle Busch sprayed his drink in Victory Lane after winning last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Busch also won there in 2011. AP

If past is prologue, the loudest boos during driver introductions for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway will be reserved for two men.

Fans will let Brad Keselowski have it.

But Kyle Busch will hear even louder boos.

While it is not unusual for the hard-charging Busch and Keselowski to get booed at NASCAR tracks, that it happens so vehemently at Kentucky carries a certain poignance.

With two Quaker State 400 victories each, Busch, 31, and Keselowski, 32, have dominated Kentucky Speedway’s Sprint Cup history.

“Any story line that starts at the top like that is really good,” Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said. “And it gives the novice fan something to look at. If they come out, now they know what to look for. It’s pretty easy to understand: Kyle Busch and Keselowski always do well at Kentucky Speedway.”

Since Bruton Smith brought Cup racing to Sparta in 2011, Busch and Keselowski have wrestled fiercely for the crown of ‘King of Kentucky.’

Busch’s claim rests on being the only driver to win there in the four top stock-car series — twice in Sprint Cup (2011 and ’15), once in the Xfinity Series (2004), twice in trucks (2011 and ’14) and once in ARCA (2003).

Keselowski’s stake is based on having won a major race in Sparta for five straight years — in addition to his two Sprint Cup wins (2012 and ’14), he’s been victorious three times (2011, ’13 and ’15) in the Xfinity Series race.

Together, the No. 18 car of Busch (437 laps) and the No. 2 of Keselowski (408) have combined to lead a whopping 63.5 percent of all Sprint Cup laps run at Kentucky Speedway.

“That track kind of personifies (the rivalry) between the two of us,” Keselowski said. “I think we’ve had kind of equal success there. That’s not a bad feeling whenever you can do that because Kyle has certainly done a great job throughout his career. So I’d like to get that ‘one-more Sprint Cup win’ so I could be above him.”

Busch, for his part, says he has relished his success at Kentucky because he considered the old, famously bumpy racing surface one of NASCAR’s toughest challenges.

“Entry to Turn 3 has been the trickiest corner for me, probably, on the circuit here,” Busch said. “But I’ve made the most of my opportunities and been able to win here.”

The fact it has taken two NASCAR mega-stars — both Keselowski (2012) and Busch (2015) have Sprint Cup championships on their résumés — to tame the challenges of Sparta has helped legitimize Kentucky Speedway as a worthy Cup Series track.

“When we’ve said in our advertising that ‘the best love’ (Kentucky Speedway), those two have proven it,” Simendinger said.

Rivals unite

Part of what has made the KB-BK Show in Kentucky so compelling is their rivalry crackles everywhere.

Things went nuclear in 2013 at Kansas Speedway in what is now the Xfinity Series. With 13 laps to go and the two drivers battling for second, Busch tapped Keselowski’s car and spun him.

Afterward, Keselowski told the media he had been wrecked “by a dirty driver.” The next day, Keselowski confronted Busch. A headline from that time declared “Brad Keselowski-Kyle Busch feud escalates to ‘war.’”

Last year, Keselowski wrote a lengthy blog post explaining his view of his (non-)relationship with Busch, explaining in great detail times in the past he felt Busch had slighted him.

Busch responded by saying he had no memory of many of the events described by Keselowski and chalked up others to Kes “making an ass of himself.”

Yet, because both had enjoyed so much success on the original Kentucky Speedway racing surface, the NASCAR rivals were united on one thing: Neither wanted to see a repave in the Bluegrass.

Said Busch: “This is certainly one of those places that we all didn’t want to see repaved. ... I don’t like repaves at all, I’ll admit. I struggle on repaves.”

Said Keselowski: “I was pretty sad (after hearing about repave). It’s sort of like I’ve lost a friend.”

Booing the best

Simendinger believes the boos in Sparta for the two most dominant drivers in Kentucky Speedway’s Sprint Cup history are just the cost of their being young, aggressive and successful.

“Right now, they are in the ‘young Jeff Gordon’ mode of their careers,” Simendinger said.

In the run-up to Saturday’s Quaker State 400, much of the speculation has centered on whether the new surface will end the Kentucky reign of “Bad Brad” and “Rowdy” Busch.

Simendinger points out that everyone asked that last year when NASCAR announced it would run a new, low-downforce package at Kentucky (it is running a different one this year).

“Once the race started, I looked up and there’s the 2 car and there’s the 18 car and they are up front again,” Simendinger said. “I was like, ‘So much for bringing everybody else back into it.’”

As it turned out, Busch led a dominant 163 laps en route to victory. Keselowski led the second-most laps, 62, before bad pit stops contributed to a sixth-place finish.

On Saturday night, we find out if the BK-KB Show at Kentucky still plays on a repave.

“Knowing those guys the way that I do,” Simendinger said, “I suspect they will figure out a way to get to the front. They always do at our place.”


NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400

Where: Kentucky Speedway in Sparta

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: NBC Sports Network

Defending champion: Kyle Busch

On the pole: Kevin Harvick

Weather forecast: Sunny with a few clouds. High near 85. Race-time conditions: 80 degrees. Partly cloudy skies.